Trial and Error

India’s complicated history with cervical cancer

01 June 2018
Photo micrograph of a pap smear indicating the possibility of cancer in the cell.
SCIENCE SOURCE/DINODIA PHOTO
Photo micrograph of a pap smear indicating the possibility of cancer in the cell.
SCIENCE SOURCE/DINODIA PHOTO

MEERA DOES NOT KNOW HER AGE. She believes she is between 35 and 40 years old. Her home is in Rajokri, in south-west Delhi, near the financial and technology hub of Gurugram. The area was once a village, and its more than 10,000 people still largely rely on farming for income. Meera and her family live below the poverty line.

For as long as she could remember, Meera always had a mild pain in her lower abdomen. She has lost count of the number of times she had visited the local doctor, who always gave her some paracetamol and told her she was fine.

“No one thought it was anything but a stomach ache,” she told me. “If I hadn’t had screening tests done, I would have continued to take stomach pills.”

In July 2017, CAPED, an organisation focussed on cancer prevention and awareness in north India, organised a screening camp near Meera’s home. That was the first time she heard of cervical cancer. She went for the screening after someone from the organisation informed her that her symptoms may be signs of the disease.

Meera waited three months for a biopsy to confirm what by then she already believed to be true: she had cervical cancer. The constant back and forth to a government hospital that followed wore her down. “When I had to do it on my own, I had to stop,” she said. “The hospital is far away for me.” Finally, in January, she saw a doctor who told her she would have to have a partial hysterectomy to remove her cervix.

S Cousins is a health journalist and writer based in Nepal. Her work focusses on the systems that perpetuate inequality and the impact this has on women’s and girls’ health.

Keywords: gender cancer Health
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